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When music plays for free

Friday 15th November 2013

As he prepared to record his second solo album The Rose Tint, South Auckland MC David Dallas found himself in something of a bind.

He was in his late twenties, had been recording for a decade and, while prominent in New Zealand hip hop circles, had never really looked like making a living from his music. Viewed from a certain angle, his career might have peaked years earlier with his appearance on Scribe’s all conquering Not Many – The Remix.

The easy play – perhaps the sensible play – was to get a day job and treat his music as more of a hobby, albeit one at which he happened to be exceptionally skilled. He had his computer science degree – the option was right there. But he wasn’t prepared to give up so easily. He still believed that there was a bigger audience for his music than just New Zealand. Dallas wasn’t thinking of himself as a New Zealand artist, rapping for a New Zealand audience. He was looking out at the world, wondering how to get its attention.

It had started to happen. The video for Big Time had got a little traction on overseas blogs, including Kanye West’s. His friend Pete ‘P-Money’ Wadams, who had seen Dallas play South by Southwest, believed the energy of those shows could translate to a real career. The problem was trying to reach that crowd.

It sure wasn’t going to happen by going through the same motions as his debut, and expecting a different result.

“If I just release the record at home by the same means, I’d be just selling to the same people, and they would be the only ones that heard it,” he says. “No one else overseas would ever hear the record.”

The thought depressed him. He needed to break the circuit. But how?

Over in the US at the same time, a new generation of hip hop and R&B artists were rising. They were young, sonically adventurous and implicitly opposed to some of the bloat which had set in amongst major label rap music in the late ‘00s. Artists like Drake, The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky and Odd Future had something else in common too. They all announced their arrival with albums they gave away for nothing. Dallas, who admired and felt a kinship with those artists, decided he would do the same thing. He would roll out The Rose Tint as a free download.

The idea is radical, even foolhardy, on the face of it. Making an album can be an expensive process, and the costs that surround it – design, manufacturing, distribution, promotion – are higher still. Plus, an artist’s got to eat, right? But there’s never been much money for artists  in album sales in New Zealand, and many production costs are mitigated or eliminated by giving the album away for free. There’s no physical product, so no manufacturing. Distribution is handled via a site like bandcamp or Soundcloud, for a pittance compared to shipping CDs. And promotion is far less labour-intensive – so long as the product is good enough, social media will do the rest.

While Dallas was then the most prominent New Zealand artist to roll out the strategy, he wasn’t the first. Home Brew’s success was propelled by a series of free EPs, which helped establish them an audience. In a 2010 interview with The Corner’s Hussein Moses, Home Brew’s Haz Beats sums up their reasoning elegantly.

“We knew people wouldn’t buy it. Like, ‘who the f@#k’s Home Brew?”

Last year, Lorde, aka Ella Yelich-O’Connor, chose to repeat the trick for her debut EP The Love Club, which would go on to be downloaded 60,000 times – and that was before it really took off. Her manager Scott Mclachlan says the reasoning was essentially the same as Home Brew’s: “How do we persuade people to buy it, when they have know idea who you are?”

Ella Yelich-O’Connor aka Lorde

While not every artist who deploys the strategy is going to end up with a worldwide smash, there is a thread which runs through each of the artists mentioned so far. Their relationship with their fans is elevated from one of producer–consumer to something altogether more intimate. The act of giving away something so crafted and emotionally resonant as music turns many of the recipients into passionate public advocates for the artist. This goes to the core of the argument that giving away your debut release is playing the long game – forgoing a small amount of money upfront for greater returns down the line.

What Dallas was effectively betting was that what he would gain from the publicity and fan engagement of such a gesture would far outstrip the loss of royalties on what The Rose Tint might otherwise have sold.

To say the strategy worked is an understatement. Not only did The Rose Tint end up being downloaded over 50,000 times, the physical release which came six months later entered the New Zealand charts at number three. His first album, Something Awesome,had debuted at 20.

“The ironic thing is, we put out a free album and that ended up being my most financially successful project,” he says today.

But that spectacular result didn’t happen in a vacuum. Dallas is a natural born hustler, an artist who understands that to achieve what he wants, the marketing and promotion needs as much attention as the music.

There was a pop up store, with Dallas hanging out all afternoon to sign copies of the album. He roped in friends like PNC, P-Money and Aaradhna to play free shows, and gave away key clothing from previous videos. It felt like the only thing happening in Auckland that week.

That’s the key to giving away a free album – making it feel like an event. Dallas has watched a number of artists he admires miss that part of the equation.

“It’s always disappointing to me when I see someone who makes really good music, and they’re like ‘my new song comes out in half an hour. Here it is’,” he says. “At f@#king two in the afternoon, when no one’s on the internet.”

There is a strange dividing line with artists on social media, between those who are promoting themselves and their projects constantly, and those who barely mention them. The latter tend to reflect the personalities of their administrator, and can be a really good time. But when it comes time to push a release, they seem almost embarrassed to mention it. When you’ve got a free release to promote, and believe in it, making the maximum possible noise around the time it drops is essential.

There are other kinds of free release, though. For some artists they can function as method of keeping more obscure parts of their back catalogue accessible. Artists like Crude, The Gladeyes and Disasteradio have their early history available for free, or pay-what-you-want. For many artists, just having their work heard is enough – revenue comes a long way back.

Another approach for established artists is to make a free release less about the thing itself than building anticipation for what’s coming. R&B singer Miguel’s Art Dealer Chic EPs, which he dropped ahead of his Kaleidoscope Dream album, vaulted him to stardom, and Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Friday run of free singles helped fans re-orientate their ears ahead of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

The latter were a key inspiration for Auckland pop-grunge trio Street Chant, who gave away their EP Isthmus of 1000 Lovers earlier this year. According to singer Emily Edrosa, the release served a few different functions.

“I’d gone through a really bad phase of writer’s block, then wrote these songs really quickly,” she says. “I just wanted them out.” The band had been labouring over a follow up to their debut Means for more than three years, and the EP functioned both as a way of thanking fans for their continued patience, and a bridge to the sound of the now-completed second album. Littler says there were other advantages too, particularly around immediacy. Songs can take months to appear on iTunes, and a small label like Arch Hill needs time to schedule a release around their other artists. By self-releasing Isthmus for free the band “didn’t have to waste any more on overheads,” she says.

While the EP did better than they had anticipated, with thousands of downloads, Littler regrets not pushing it harder. “We didn’t promote it at all,” she says. The band has had a “f@#king awesome” video near completion for months, didn’t send out review copies and haven’t uploaded it to streaming services like Spotify. Still, the project gave the band some momentum back after their energy had started to flag, and, importantly for bands on a budget, cost very little to release.

Paying to give something away, though – that’s got to be galling. It’s easy to imagine today’s young bands pining for the days when music fans were willing to pay for what they consumed. But for David Dallas the opportunities presented by this era far outweigh the frustrations.

“Is the frustration greater than what it used to be? Where you might get a record deal, and you might make a record and people don’t stock the record on shelves, so no one sees it or hears it? Or no one plays it on the radio. I think it balances out.”

Going free isn’t for everyone. Established artists probably don’t need it, and those which aren’t great self-promoters or online operators may gain little from the experience. But for a certain kind of artist, at certain junctures in their career, a free release can be transformational.

“The record changed my life,” says Dallas. “I mean shit – worked for Lorde, didn’t it?”

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